Whether you’ve been a member of an electric cooperative for seven months or seven decades, it’s likely you don’t give it too much thought. For the most part, that means things are running smoothly. But at times, it’s good to take a closer look at co-ops: see what’s working, what needs improvement, what challenges lie ahead and—maybe the most important consideration of all—do they still have a reason to exist? This story is an exercise in that kind of reflection. We examine the purpose of electric cooperatives, yours and nearly 900 others around the country.
If electric cooperatives did not exist, would it matter?
In 2012, the International Year of Cooperatives, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, looking back on 75 years of electric cooperative history, assembled a group of co-op managers and directors from across the country to turn their attention to the future and find an answer to that question.
It was a daunting assignment that engaged members of the 21st Century Committee on a journey of discovery whose destination was the articulation of a vision that would ensure the success and sustainability of electric cooperatives in the coming years.
Led by Texas Electric Cooperatives President/CEO Mike Williams, the committee spent nearly a year traveling to selected cooperatives to study what made them successful, listening to members, discussing their observations and assessing the social, economic and political climate within which co-ops operate.
In the 75 years since electric co-ops first turned on the lights in rural America, we’ve seen tremendous change, much of it advanced by technology. From the day when a single lightbulb illuminating a dark room precipitated wonder and excitement, we now take for granted personal computers, pocket-sized mobile phones, home appliances that operate according to schedule, and on and on. Humans have walked on the moon. Robots assemble automobiles.
But somewhere in the midst of all that, we’ve also witnessed a decline in American optimism. “People are just not as trustful as they once were,” says Williams. “Consumers generally have little faith in large institutions, government and big corporations. They have concluded the only one you can really depend on is yourself.”
In such an environment of self-reliance, he believes, co-ops are more relevant today than ever. “The electric cooperative is a self-help model that allows people to do something for themselves in a more personal, more cost-effective way than anyone else could.” That’s a message that resonates with consumers, says Williams. “We have an essential service to provide safe, affordable, reliable electricity, but so much more. It has always been that way, and it is today.”
It’s the “so much more” that Roy Spence, author of “It’s Not What You Sell, It’s What You Stand For,” helped the committee understand was the key to co-op sustainability.
Spence, an energetic man known for his creativity, humanity and “don’t do mild” zest for life, is the co-founder and chairman of internationally renowned ad agency GSD&M. You might never have heard of Spence. But you likely know his agency’s popular ads, such as Southwest Airlines’ “Bags Fly Free.” Although he didn’t know a lot about electric cooperatives when he agreed to participate in the work of the 21st Century Committee, he knew a lot about something the co-ops needed to ponder: Purpose, or the “why” of an individual’s or entity’s existence.
Purpose is the heart and soul of Spence’s message, whether to long-established businesses, startups or, yes, electric cooperatives. “Purpose provides a road map to hold your course along the journey. It ensures that everyone stays on track and you don’t end up in a ditch, stalled out and confused as to how you got there,” he writes.
The question “What is our purpose?” then became the lens that clarified the committee’s work as it met with focus groups comprising CEOs, directors/trustees and consumers from rural and suburban cooperatives located across the U.S. This process produced a plethora of information and opinions the committee studied for five months. What became clearer and clearer was that co-ops’ integration into the fabric of the communities they serve resulted in a better quality of life for their members.
The relationship between co-ops and quality of life in the community was recognized from the beginning. The April 1945 issue of Texas Co-op Power contained an article that drew a straight line between the cooperatives and specific quality-of-life measures. (See Page 12)
Interestingly, that 1945 article came to light after the committee drafted the statement of Purpose, which is: “The Purpose of the electric cooperatives is to power communities and empower members to improve the quality of their lives.” Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising. After all, if something is true and honest and real, it doesn’t change over time. Spence is fond of quoting the poet T.S. Eliot, who writes of the phenomenon:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Applying those words to the exploratory work of the 21st Century Committee validates the authenticity of the Purpose statement they articulated.
Quality of Life
Why would an electric cooperative, with the huge responsibility of providing electricity for thousands of businesses and residents, concern itself with members’ quality of life?
“Because as locally owned and controlled institutions, they are inextricably tied to the communities they serve,” answers Williams. “The welfare of the community is as important to co-ops as it is to the community. They live there, too. It’s where they work, where they go to church and where their kids go to school.”
There is no “us” and “them.” After all, Williams concludes, “It’s hard to provide world-class electric services to a wide spot in the road.”
While it’s self-evident that co-ops provide electric power to the communities they serve, their role in empowering members to improve the quality of their lives is less obvious. Stated another way, co-ops often provide the unheralded support that gets member-initiated projects off the ground.
“The best solutions to a problem usually come from the people who are closest to the need,” says Williams. “So, cooperatives, being democratically controlled and locally owned, know their members and are more inclined, and have the capacity, to more smartly and judiciously identify and implement member-initiated ideas for tackling community challenges.”
For example, a group of residents might come together to explore ways to bring a health care clinic to a town without one. They’ll need a regular place to meet. The local co-op offers its boardroom.
They’ll need to demonstrate the ability to provide a facility. The co-op helps negotiate repurposing a vacant building, and co-op employees—who also will benefit from the project—conduct fundraising events to help meet a matching funds requirement. The co-op might underwrite a piece of medical equipment with a grant from its charitable foundation.
You get the idea Of course, that’s a hypothetical scenario but very close to reality. Did the co-op itself bring in the clinic? No. Rather, it empowered its members to do it themselves. Going back to the earliest cooperatives when members paid $5 per family to join the effort that brought light to the countryside, the self-help aspect of cooperative membership hasn’t changed.
But self-help in a cooperative setting doesn’t mean individuals have to fend for themselves. The cooperative culture thrives when people help one another. As Spence puts it, “The first lesson in Purpose is if someone helps you, you’ve got to help somebody else.
“Co-ops weren’t necessarily created to do things other than provide electric services, but in many cases they have done so because those services weren’t provided by anyone else,” Spence says. For example, some Texas co-ops have formed subsidiaries that provide water, telephone service or propane delivery where those amenities weren’t otherwise conveniently available.
Democratizing the American Dream
In Spence’s work with the 21st Century Committee and in his presentations to the NRECA membership, he frames the effect of electric cooperatives on rural America as nothing less than “democratizing the American dream.” In the 1930s and ’40s, electricity was readily available in urban areas and some small towns, making possible social, economic and educational opportunities for achieving the American dream. But in rural America, people were living as if they were still in the 19th century.
Parker Wetsel remembers that time well. Wetsel, 89, was 15 when linemen set the poles and ran the wire into his family’s farm home several miles outside of Roby. “My father heard about electricity coming to homes and water wells, and then there was a meeting in June of 1938 where people signed on to go with the REA [Rural Electric Administration].” One by one, families, including Wetsel’s, in Fisher, Jones and Scurry counties “signed on” with the REA to form a member-owned electric company, Midwest Electric Cooperative. And one by one, the poles were set by hand to string the wires that would deliver the means for these families to participate in the American dream.
Wetsel was keenly aware that towns in the area, such as Roby, already had electricity. His voice takes on a wistful quality; he closes his eyes and describes what is still so vivid in his mind. “It was so enjoyable to go to town and see the electricity in those homes. And the lights outside would shine on the cars and pickups. And you wouldn’t stumble over anything.”
When it finally came to his home, electricity meant Wetsel’s family could connect with the rest of the world through the radio that brought them the voice of President Franklin Roosevelt and the sounds of boxer Joe Louis’ historic championship bouts. It meant his mother replaced the wood-fired cooking stove with an electric range and the icebox with a refrigerator. It meant no more eyestrain from the shadowy, dim coal-oil lamps.
Electric lights in the house and barns meant activity was no longer limited to daylight hours. “Our family was better off in so many ways,” Wetsel says. “With lights in the barn we could work on the farm equipment after dark so it would be ready in the morning. And in the morning before the sun was up we could take care of the livestock, milk the cows and tend to the chickens twice as fast, then I could get to the house with time to study.”
But one of Wetsel’s best memories of the gifts of electricity was more ice cream. “Before we got the refrigerator, we had an ice man who came around to the farm houses every three days. We’d put the ice in coolers covered with heavy quilts or ducking to save as much ice as we could for cold drinks. It was very unusual to have enough to make ice cream,” he remembers. “With the refrigerator we could keep ice and had enough to make ice cream. The kids, and even the older people, liked it so much it seems like we made it every few days.”
Wetsel would later become fully immersed in the work of Midwest EC (now Big Country EC). In 1952, during the worst drought in Texas history, he was forced to sell his farm. He went to work for the co-op, one of the few employers in the area. He recalls the picnic-style annual meeting, an event he says became a focal point for community cohesiveness.
“We had that first one under a big tent,” he remembers. “We brought in stoves, washing machines and electric motors for people to see. And we had brochures about electricity and appliances. We built a platform for the piano from the First Methodist Church so we could have entertainment. By 1954 we had so many people—between 4,500 and 5,000—we moved it to the Fisher County rodeo grounds.”
In 1975, after taking on several other co-op positions, Wetsel became general manager of Midwest EC. He retired in 1989, but even today when he speaks of the coming of electricity to the countryside and the difference the cooperative has made in the quality of life for his family, friends and neighbors, it’s as if he makes no distinction between the work of the co-op and the life of the community.
“The pioneers of this movement turned the lights on. Literally.” Spence, his trim frame and signature black V-neck pullover, is in his element as he strides across the stage at the 2013 NRECA Annual Meeting. A fiery, impassioned voice for the work of the hundreds of electric cooperatives represented in the audience, he exudes: “And because of that they revolutionized everything. Now it’s time to turn the lights on again, get enlightened again, and pass the torch to a new generation.
“Our job and our responsibility is to always reach out and empower others.”
The conclusion of the 21st Century Committee was exactly that. The Purpose statement is simple but carries within it the call for cooperatives to respect their heritage, continue the work of providing safe, reliable, affordable electricity and practice the sound fiscal policies of the cooperative business model.
The combination of co-ops’ old-fashioned pragmatism and their ability to adapt judiciously to change enables them to exist to fulfill their purpose into the coming decades.
And always, Williams reminds us, there remains the emphasis on the local advantage. “Whatever is out there, co-ops are in touch with and working for members. Co-ops make decisions that fit the local community, as opposed to taking a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Co-ops recognize that costs are important, so we don’t run out and buy the latest gadget and hope it works.”
In a future that promises a constant stream of new gadgets, changing demographics, economic puzzles to solve and an energy landscape that will surely look much different from what we see today, the challenges are clear.
As co-ops grapple with all that and more, the ones that remain true to their Purpose will be fortified. There’s nothing magic about the notion of “powering communities and empowering members to improve the quality of their lives.” But it’s what co-ops have always done and, with renewed commitment, will keep doing.
Carol Moczygemba is the retired Texas Co-op Power executive editor.